The Balikbayan Special

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As some of you know, I’m back in good old, lovely Metro Manila since the beginning of this year. No, Korea didn’t kick me out. I left semi voluntarily. And since this is my first post since coming back, I will indulge in one of the favorite past times of Balikbayans – comparing the Philippines with the country they just left behind. 


So in the grand tradition of generations of Balikbayans who are horrified to realize  how backward *everything* is in here, despite having lived in this country for decades before moving to a new country, I present you with my laundry list of complaints that are affecting me where it matters the most – in the wallet.


I hope you don’t get too annoyed but if you do, feel free to complain about my complaints in the comments. 


Our public transportation system is a joke

I’m going to start with a low-hanging fruit. The MRT and LRT continue to deteriorate and yet they are our best bet if we want to save time and money traversing EDSA and large parts of Metro Manila. Of course the term “saving” is relative because if the trains break down, which they regularly did in the past few years, they take hours to go back up.


But let’s say that the trains work as intended. The queues are long and there.are.too.many.people!


Imagine yourself traveling for work early in the morning (you need to be there super early if you hope to make it before office hours commence) wearing your crisp long-sleeved shirt and your hair coiffed. You’re feeling cute. Then you’re pushed to the bowels of a carriage by everyone behind you, and it is only by the grace of the gods that you luckily escape falling and getting stuck on the tracks and dying a horrible death. You pray that the train doesn’t break down. You finally arrive at your station where you notice that your freshly pressed work outfit is now crumpled and your armpit and back now have sweat stains (composed of your and the next guy’s sweat) because guess what – the train aircon doesn’t work and you’re all jampacked like sardines in a Ligo can. 


Then you have a take another bus, or jeepney, or tricycle ride from there, where you have to be wary of snatchers. What a nightmare. 


Imagine this happening to you twice a day, 5 days a week, 240 days a year.


Me on a train in Bolivia
Me on top of a decommissioned train in the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, because why not?

This may be cheating because Seoul has one of the, if not the, best public transport system in the world but every time I think about how efficient and comfortable it is to commute in Seoul compared to Manila, I want to weep hot bitter tears. 


First of all, if the train breaks down in Seoul even for less than an hour, it is a national scandal and makes the news. There will be angry politicians talking to reporters. Angry women on the street will be interviewed.


By the bye, Koreans are probably the most reklamador people in the world.  Services, both public and private, are done well for fear of being confronted by an angry citizen/customer. 


Subway trains are clean, fast, and efficient. Admittedly, you will sometimes inhale the sweet aroma of kimchi mixed with soju fermented in sweat in some lines (I’m looking at you Blue Line) but other than that, it’s a great experience overall. 


Also, none of those long queues of people buying tickets at the station. You can buy tap cards at any convenience store and load up there as well, and they come in cute designs. The tap cards can be used in all public transport services not only in Seoul but in the whole of Korea.


It’s not only about the quality of the train though. A big part of why Korean public transport system is awesome is how it is connected to each other. You can go to almost any part of Seoul and the surrounding provinces by using a combination of subway and buses. There is no need to take a cab unless you really want to.

Korea's high speed KTX. I wish this for us.

I didn’t even buy a car when I was in Korea because not only did I live 5 minutes away from my office, I was already happy taking public transportation. 


I’m really pissed by how much our abysmal transportation system is costing me a lot of money. I don’t drive because I want to spend my morning commute staring into the distance thinking of nothing. So by necessity I need to take cabs. I love Grab but man it’s expensive. Spending around 1,000 pesos daily to go to work sucks. And it’s not even fast because it takes an average of 15 minutes to book my ride.


You need to pay to be amused and/or hang out with people

Another big complaint I have is, why are there no places for people to hang out for free?


We need to go to the mall or hang out in coffee shops and restaurants to be entertained or meet people. And of course you can’t just sit at the café without buying anything, you need to buy at least one drink or people, including other customers, will give you dirty, judgmental looks. I can’t handle that pressure and negativity in my day.  And obviously I can’t get coffee without getting something to eat or my mouth will get lonely, so I need to buy a cake or ensaymada too, costing me more money.


This makes me so mad because until now they still don’t even give out the wifi password to people. In Korea, all places have free wifi, including the bus stop.


Another thing that makes me envious of Korea is that it’s obvious that the government care about the well-being and relaxation of its citizens by providing them with FREE amusement. Sure nice parks where ajummas and ajeossis can exercise for free do not make up for the intense and constant pressure to compete and conform, but at least Koreans can commiserate while hanging out for free at the Han River Park drinking beers they bought from CU. Here if we need to complain with our friends we need to go to Poblacion or O-Bar and pay cover and/or buy  more than one expensive cocktail. 


Or to be honest, me and my fellow titas just go to Mary Grace. But food there isn’t exactly cheap and you can’t nurse one coffee to hang out in Mary Grace the entire day. They will probably kick you out. In Korea people just basically hang out in Coffee Smith or Starbucks the entire day after buying one coffee and feel privileged to use the wifi and electricity.

Utility prices are exhorbitant

I’m already resigned to the fact that utility prices in Manila are super high but that doesn’t stop me from raging every time I see my monthly electricity bill and pay my slow-ass internet service.


Right now I live alone in my condo unit. My monthly electricity bill alone is equivalent to the monthly bills, combined, I used to pay in Korea, and I used to live in a 110 square meter apartment. The only times my Korean bills were higher were in the height of winter when I turned on the floor heating and used my electric blanket. This is obviously ridiculous but unfortunately nothing will be done as we’ve been perpetually complaining about our electricity costs and nobody has done anything. 


Telco services here are subpar and overpriced. I used to pay 28,000 won monthly for my super fast internet, which is equivalent to around 1,200 pesos. My son who got used to 5G internet was in tears in our first month back because the internet here is so slow. It was funny to watch. 


On the positive side, the slow internet motivated him to think about moving out of the country once he’s older and rich.


So thank you, slow Philippine internet for motivating my son to work hard in school. 

Hanging out in Haneul Park
Hanging out in Haneul Park - for free. No entrance fees were charged.

Being treated like a criminal when making financial transactions

Even disregarding the obscene wait times we have to endure at the banks (except when you’re one of those VVIP people, and if so, I hate you), our banking experience in the Philippines is hellish and frankly, very offensive.


I don’t enjoy being interrogate and made to prove that I’m not a criminal when I’m trying to open a savings account. I’m not trying to scam you by depositing my money with you, Philippine banks! 


Also, what is up with currency exchange shops trying to get all personal details? The worst offender is probably SM, with their multi-page questionnaire asking extensive personal information including passport details, place of birth, employers, etc. Is it a NICA front trying to get information on potential subversives who ~checks notes~ want to exchange foreign currency to pesos? We may never know. 


They should take a leaf out of Korean banks. Yes, foreigners are by default excluded from many banking and financial services *because we can’t read or understand Korean at that level* but in services that we can avail of, Korean banks are awesome. 


First and most importantly, people don’t have to spend hours waiting to be served. The longest time I waited was probably less than an hour. Second, they have free coffee and comfy seats.  There’s no security guard to admonish you from eating or drinking inside the premises or from using your phone (the latter not ideal in the Philippines because of potential bank robbery).


And as long as your alien records are in order, you can open a bank account. No need to present an employment certificate, bills, first school report card and other OA requirements like we do here in the Philippines.


In some cases, banks allow foreigners to open accounts only with passports (usually the TNTs, aka, undocumented foreigners), but please don’t quote me on that because I only heard of this information second hand. 


Another important thing. Bank personnel know their products. You will never have the experience of having to explain to a bank employee that her bank offer such and such product because if they don’t know, they have all the resources at their finger tips.


Here in Manila I’ve had plenty of experience briefing bank employees about their own products. For example, many BPI and BDO branches still do not know PERA or the Personal Equity Retirement Account, which is aggravating because the products have been on offer more or less 5 years now. 

Tree with crochet sweater
Tree with crochet sweater on during winter. Koreans are so caring. 🙂

Lack of banchan

One of the best things about Korea – banchan or side dishes. A simple meal can be transformed into a feast when you put banchan to the equation.


If you order sundubu (tofu soup), you’re not only getting sundubu and rice, but also kimchi and at least 2 other side dishes. And the best part is, they are refillable and don’t raise the cost of the meal.


Banchan is served in almost all restaurants in Korea so it was such a shock coming back home and be reminded that we only get what we ordered, literally. 


I know I only ordered 1 main ulam, rice, and drink but why are you bringing me only those?? Where’s the rest of my meal???


I honestly believe that banchan should be elevated to be a UNESCO Intangible World Heritage and that nations should sign treaties to serve banchan all over the world, adapted to local tastes and cuisines, naturally.


Obviously, people get more food for their money but banchan also helps Koreans get a more balanced meal. Banchan are mostly fermented vegetables so it brings not only flavor but also more nutrients to the meal. It’s good for our wallets and health. Now I have to take probiotics daily with my morning coffee because I no longer eat fermented food that much. If I want to eat more kimchi I have to go buy it separately which I try not to do too much because kimchi stink up my fridge. That’s why Koreans have dedicated kimchi refrigerators.


Lastly, banchan makes for a festive looking meal, what with all the colors and the little containers. Very IG-worthy, you have to admit. That’s why I get mad with our sad-ass and literal food presentation here. I don’t want to just receive the literal bowl of noodles I ordered, I want other things to go with it. Please.

Sad noises

I can’t help being a little wistful about the end of my sojourn in Korea but I’m honestly happy to be back in the Philippines. I see this as an opportunity to be reacquainted and see the country with fresh-ish eyes. Sometimes it takes being away for some time to really appreciate what you have, and of course, there’s no place like home. 


And I came to realize that any place in the world can be comfortable, including the Philippines, if you have money to make the inconvenience go away.


It’s so sad to accept the fact that if we want to have a relaxed and enjoyable life we really need to take out money from our pockets because there certainly aren’t that many (or actually, any) government projects that will prioritize quality of life here. Instead of a efficient and comfortable transport system, we have private options like Grab, Joyride, and Angkas. Instead of public parks and other forms of free and accessible recreation, we have malls. 


On the other hand, I’m glad to be back and as much as I hate spending more money to achieve a small semblance of the level of comfort and enjoyment I used to have in Korea, I like being able to eavesdrop on people who have too loud conversations in cafes and being able to understand everything they said. 😀


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Hi, I'm Katie Scarlett!

I'm a mother, feminist, bookworm, yogi, and a hoopy frood who knows where my towel is. I am on a constant quest towards self-improvement, to mixed results.

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Katie Scarlett

is a personal finance advocate working towards achieving financial independence and early retirement (FIRE).

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